Historically, petticoats were a woman’s undercoat worn to be displayed beneath an open gown; or a tight, usually padded undercoat worn by men over a shirt and under a doublet (jacket). The origin of the word is the late Middle English period: ‘petty coat’, literally meaning small coat. Later, worn under outer garments, the function of the petticoat was to give warmth, or to create a fashionable shape by adding volume beneath a skirt or dress – rather than from notions of modesty.
The petticoat has gone in and out of mainstream fashion since the sixteenth century to Christian Dior’s New Look in the mid 1940s and 50s, and to the present day with subcultures such as gothic, steampunk and Lolita.
Arguably today the most popular notion of a petticoat must be the full, ruffled shape associated with Victorian times, or the tulle crinolines of 1950s prom queens. More often than not, these were white. In previous centuries though, petticoats were worn to be seen, either deliberately revealed by openings or draping of the overskirts, or by accident with the force of a high wind lifting a hooped or crinoline skirt. Petticoats were therefore highly decorative, made from beautiful fabrics in glorious colours and trimmed with ribbons and lace. They were gorgeous enough to be worn as skirts in themselves.
By contrast, the bustle was a rather unattractive foundation garment with little or no grace, in fashion predominantly in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Worn at the back, just under the waist, the primary function of the bustle was to preserve the shape of full, draped skirts and keep them from dragging. The heavy skirts of the day tended to flatten from sheer weight during everyday wear, even merely sitting or moving about.
Different styles of bustles came and went over the decades, initially evolving from a crinoline in the mid 1860s when the shape was worn quite low and often fanning out to form a train. It was then lifted to form a pronounced hump shape immediately below the waist, with the skirts falling sharply to the floor, very much changing the silhouette. It grew to monstrous proportions in the mid 1880s but was out of fashion by the end of the decade.
The attractive ‘S-shape’ figure of the day that accentuated a tiny waist meant that a curve at the back of the skirt balanced the curve of the bust (exaggerated by corsets in their turn), and gentler versions of the bustle were worn into the early twentieth century.
Today bustles are rarely seen except in the realm of sensationalist haute couture, bridal fashion and the aforementioned subcultures – petticoats, with their more uniform silhouette are easier on the eye and more forgiving to wear.
My vintage petticoat was borrowed from the Melbourne Theatre Company’s costume department to give fullness to my own 1920s skirt, which made part of my Queen of Hearts costume for the theatre’s Christmas party last year. The full skirt is gathered at the waist, with rope sewn into the hem to create shape and give weight. There is also what I have dubbed a ‘mini bustle’ at the back.
When I first donned it, the petticoat felt quite heavy, but I became accustomed to it surprisingly quickly and managed to spend quite a bit of time on the dance floor without feeling the weight at all – it created a pleasing swing in fact. The camisole, possibly 80s or 90s, is my own, and was bought in a charity store years ago.
* All images in the above gallery are from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York